Myth and You and Me

Detail of slave cabin at restored Whitney Plantation, Edgard, Louisiana (Steve Lubetkin photo/Used by permission)
Detail of slave cabin at restored Whitney Plantation, Edgard, Louisiana (Steve Lubetkin photo/Used by permission)

Myth is often defined as a false idea that is believed to be true. All too often myth is thought to be deliberately designed to deceive. Actually, in the cultural history of a people, myth is a traditional story created to convey the most profound truths about the existence of the group. Usually, myths contain one or more underlying moral precepts that are not time bound. However these precepts are clothed in garments that are fashioned in time, and a story that is interpreted one way when it is first told is often interpreted quite differently centuries later. Most folk tales and fables include major moral precepts that are meant to be passed from one generation to the next and thereby last for all time.

Take for instance the Declaration of Independence of the United States. To most Americans it is a sacred historical document. We learn in grade school to read it with pride, especially the statement that says “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

Today we apply the word “men” to all people. However, we know that Thomas Jefferson, author of the document, was a slaveholder. To him the word men applied only to white, Christian males. It did not apply to African Americans, Native Americans, or to women. In fact, under the Constitution of the United States, no woman gained equal rights as a citizen until 1920. Therefore it is myth that the people of the United States have always believed in equality for all. Nevertheless, we honor Jefferson’s words even as we reinterpret them, and by so doing find the precious hidden truth in them. We consider his statement, within our current understanding of it, to be our American heritage.

Another piece of American history that takes its place in the mythological past is life as it was lived on Southern plantations. Most of us now acknowledge how hard it was for the slaves that maintained them. We know that the black faces in the cotton and tobacco fields did not return to their homes in the evening singing nostalgic songs, nor did they call “old black Joe” in gentle voices. That fable, that myth was never true. But also untrue was the easy life of the pre-civil war Scarlett O’Hara. Plantations were hot ,sweaty, mosquito ridden places with no indoor plumbing, They were usually owned by white men who also owned their white wives as property. Never were the plantations like those filmed in Gone With the Wind. They were mythologized to give a pretty face to the reality that they were a necessary part of our Southern economy, though today one would be hard pressed to find the face pretty.

So what do myths tell us? They tell us who we may we think we are, were, or wanted to be at some point in time. Our myths describe what we believed, wanted to believe, or still believe to be true. We interpret myth from where we stand or where we stood on issues related to the social order. This is as true of our Jewish story as it is of our American story. Did hundreds of thousand Israelites actually cross the Sea of Reeds? Did Pharaoh’s army actually drown? And does it really matter? Or is the move from slavery to freedom the point, along with all that the journey entailed then, and also now.

Just as there are collective myths that sing our common story, there are individual myths that tell our individual stories. We tell them to ourselves over and over again, and they determine what we think are our choices and how we behave. Our personal mythologies undergird the actions that we take, actions that fix our future. How we act depends not so much on objective fact, but more on what we believe to be true. Our personal mythologies express what we think and feel.. We see our myths as our deepest truths. It is for this reason that it is imperative that we examine them.

Such and examination took place On May 11th of this year when the Mark G. Loeb Adult Education Center of the Beth El Congregation in Baltimore provided a day long program called “A Day for Women”. During that time women, historically the spokes of awheel, not the hub, whose role in life has historically been primarily viewed through a lens provided by men, could examine their personal mythologies, and think about what really enlivens them. They examined their “if onlys,” their “what ifs.” They examined when and why the women of the Bible danced, for example Miriam after the crossing of the sea. They looked at what constrains them from dancing and they and focused on what helps them get unstuck. They examined the myth that as women there is only one good way to be, that one must please others at all costs, and that it is always right to put the whims and wishes of others before those of self. They examined who determines that one is too fat, too thin, and who says whether it is too late to find another love, or whether one is too old to dance. In summary, they examined all of their private myths that constrain.

Men could also benefit from a day like this. There are so many myths about what a real man must do, how he must provide, how he must protect, how he must be if he is to be worthy of being called a man. How hard must it be to dance for a man who listens to a different drumbeat.

The myths by which we live, the stories that we tell ourselves and others when we talk about the Us and the ME are based on at least a kernel of past or present truth, or the whole of a reality hoped for. Let us not be afraid to reframe meaning when an old narrative needs a new cloak. In retelling our story may we be current in the sure knowledge that what we believe today will determine how we will behave and what we will become tomorrow.

Lee J. Richmond


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